Cat Care: To Declaw or Not to Declaw?

Why declawing a cat is inhumane.

cutting cat claws

Most cat lovers know that veterinarians do not recommend declawing because of its painful effect on the animals. Some still feel that declawing is the only way they can manage their pets' scratching habits, however. Care.com asked Dr. Lisa Maciorakowski, DVM of the General Medicine Team at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, to weigh in on the declawing debate.

Care.com: Many cat lovers are aware that veterinarians do not recommend declawing cats. Why, generally, is this?

Dr. Maciorakowski: Declawing cats is generally not recommended because it is an elective surgical procedure done solely for owner convenience, with no benefit to the feline. It is difficult to justify a procedure that is painful and can result in physical and behavioral complications when there are alternative methods to deter scratching of undesirable surfaces. The solution to the undesirable scratching should be to modify the cat's conduct by making changes in the environment and redirecting the cats' natural scratching behavior to an appropriate area. Scratching is a natural, healthy feline behavior that allows cats to stretch and mark their territory, and is an activity they simply enjoy. Declawing cats takes away all of this as well as their integral means of movement, balance and defense. Cats should not be treated as an inanimate object that can be modified as owners see fit. In fact, there are several countries in which declawing is either illegal or considered extremely inhumane.

Care.com: What advice can you give to cat lovers who want to avoid declawing but also hope to protect their furniture and home?

Dr. Maciorakowski: To help protect the furniture and home from scratching damage, make sure that the cat's nails are trimmed regularly. There are also plastic nail covers (called Soft Paws) that can be applied. Providing several acceptable scratching outlets that they can be redirected toward is essential. Appropriate scratching posts should be stationed at various locations. You may have to try several different types of objects to determine the specific scratching material and shape (horizontal vs. vertical) that your cat prefers. Some cats like to scratch by stretching over their heads, while others like to reach down over an edge or in front of them on the ground.

Care.com: Are there specific methods or tricks for discouraging a cat from scratching furniture versus a scratching post or other toy?

Dr. Maciorakowski: Another way to discourage cats from scratching furniture is by applying double-sided sticky tape to the surfaces. This can be unpleasant to some cats and may deter them from scratching. Most cats dislike citrus smells, so this fragrance sprayed around or on the surface may make them want to stay away. Some cats will be less likely to scratch near the pheromone spray, Felaway.

Try to avoid punishment and strongly encourage the use of the scratching posts. Catnip can be sprinkled on the desired scratching objects and all scratching done on the appropriate surface should be "praised" or awarded with petting or treats and always associated with a positive response. While the transition is being made, the posts should be placed close to the area that they were scratching and the object being protected may be covered with a sheet or other smooth material that is unlikely to be scratched. If the cats are still insisting on scratching at unwanted surfaces after all of the above, then a quick squirt of water directed at the cat in action can be used as an aversion technique.

Care.com: I have heard a veterinarian say that the only time declawing is a possibility is when pet guardians love and want to keep their pet but feel that they simply must have the animal declawed because of ongoing damage to furniture. Do you agree?

Dr. Maciorakowski: No, declawing is not an acceptable option for the beautiful, perfect felines that trust us and depend on us to be their advocate and take care of and protect them. I believe that anyone who truly loves their cat and wishes to keep it as a companion should accept claws and scratching as inherent attributes and adjust their life accordingly.

Care.com: What is the medical procedure involved in removing a cat's claws?

Dr. Maciorakowski: Declawing is a surgical procedure that is much more complicated than simply trimming or removing the cat's nails (claws). Cats' nails are actually part of the last bone (distal, or third phalanx) in their toes. Therefore, the declawing procedure involves amputation (using scalpel blade or laser) of the last bone of each toe. It would be comparable to cutting off a human's fingers and toes at their last knuckle.

Care.com: Does the cat experience pain or disability?

Dr. Maciorakowski: Declawing is a very painful surgical procedure with a strong potential for secondary complications. Our feline patients cannot go on "bed rest" following their surgery and have to walk around on their amputated, bandaged feet as soon as they wake up from the anesthesia. Hopefully they are receiving pain medications to help control some of this pain. Infections, chronic pain (comparable to "phantom limb" syndrome in humans) and gait abnormalities or lameness can be seen later on. If the last phalanx (toe bone) has not been completely removed the first time, a second surgery would be needed. Remember, by declawing we are drastically altering the conformation of cats' feet, causing the feet to meet the ground at an unnatural angle. This can cause back or other muscular pain as the cat tries to compensate for the change. As the cat attempts to balance with the altered conformation this can be extremely distressing beyond just the physical discomfort.

Care.com: What about behavioral changes?

Dr. Maciorakowski: Some cats can develop psychological and behavioral changes following declawing. The adjustment to living without body parts that had been such an important part of their lives can be difficult and their personalities can change. Cats once social and playful may become withdrawn and introverted. Others become nervous, fearful and/or aggressive. Left with no defense other than their teeth, declawed cats often resort to biting. If the cat associates the litter box with a painful experience during recovery, this could result in a life-long aversion to using the litter box. Also, when left unable to mark territory by scratching, some cats may mark with urine, also resulting in inappropriate elimination problems. Many cats are surrendered to shelters and adoption centers due to such behavioral issues that often develop after declawing.

Care.com: Some people adopt cats from shelters that have already been declawed. Are there any special considerations regarding their care? I assume, for example, that a declawed cat should never go outside?

Dr. Maciorakowski : Declawed cats should never be allowed to go outdoors unsupervised. Always remember that they cannot scratch to defend themselves or climb well to get away -- indoors or out. Also, make sure that they are always able to get around comfortably and that they are not bothered by their feet.

Care.com: Is there any situation when you would judge it necessary to declaw a cat? If so, where should the procedure be done?

Dr. Maciorakowski: I would only consider declawing in a few specific situations where it is in the best interest of the cat. Removing extra interdigital nails that are at risk of growing into the foot or floppy, non-weight bearing nails that are at risk of getting caught and torn off are some examples. In these cases, it would never be all of the toes, but only the selected "problem" nails. Any declawing procedure should be done at a veterinary clinic where the veterinarian is experienced with the procedure and will provide the necessary pain control during and after surgery.

Dr. Maciorakowski's message is clear -- declawing cats is a painful and almost always unnecessary procedure. I plan to implement a few of her great suggestions for dealing with scratching problems in my own home!

Faye Rapoport DesPres is a freelance writer specializing in pet care, family and outdoor activities. She lives with her husband and five cats, and has a website at OurPlaceToPaws.com.

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Comments (9)
cat owner
Sometimes loud screeching (young kids) can freak a cat out causing the cat to think s/he needs to protect her/himself.
Posted: March 22, 2014 at 10:46 PM
Molly P.
Usually problems occur more with cats over a year old. I have all three of my cats front feet declawed. They hardly even acted in pain or that they realized what happened. Of course I also got it done when they got spayed/neutered at 4 months of age. I work at a clinic and we hardly do declaws, but the older the cat the harder it is on them for sure.
Posted: April 24, 2013 at 11:13 PM
Tiffany
I have a 8 month old Orange Tabby and I love him to death but I love my daughter more. He is constantly attacking her and me when least expect it. I am tired of hearing my daughter scream out because the cat has attacked her legs and she is only 3. Nothing works spray bottles, loud noises. I think it's best best for me to get him declawed because there is no where to take him in my area because the humane society will no longer take cats because they have too many and plus I do t want to get rid if him because he can be super sweet.
Posted: April 08, 2013 at 9:44 PM
Terry
I have very mixed feelings on declawing. On the one hand, I feel it is in the best interest of both cat and owner that the destruction of furniture, rugs and woodwork is prevented as is the potentially adversarial or resentful relationship that can develop between cat and owner. Cats will mark territory and demonstrate their displeasure by spraying. This behavior is not just limited to males either. I have seen a female cat spray/urinate whilst backed up to an object. Some cats purposely scratch where you don't want them to, jus to see your reaction. I have had kittens declawed and they grew up to be very sweet and not aggressive. I would not, however, recommend declawing an adult cat. They really are traumatized by this painful procedure. Very young animals not only heal faster, they also do not seem to be debilitated without them. They quickly learn they cannot climb curtains and generally do not 'miss' their claws. I know of a cat that was able to climb trees without his claws. They 'scratch' as they would with claws, but your furniture and woodwork is not damaged. As for 'marking', my male cat who was declawed did mark inside the house. This was very distressing to me as my hardwood floors, carpet and furnishings were damaged, some beyond repair. Both declawed cats lived indoors and were not allowed out unless supervised on leash. One was very good about following on his leash and he was leashed for 18 of his 20 year life. I did, however have to be very aware of other cats roaming the neighborhood. If they came into my yard, there were words and the aggression between the two was highly charged. I did have to take my cat to the vet for treatment of an infected bite from another cat. He lived to age 20 and died of a blood clot. His kidneys were failing and he had a heart murmur, but with medication, he was a happy cat until the end. My other cat who was declawed as a young kitten was entirely an indoor cat. She lived to 18 and died of kidney disease.

I now have two male cats, one of which came to me as a stray adult with claws. The other was a shelter adoption, a 4 month old with claws. I did not declaw either due to their ages. I know of someone who declawed their several-year-old cat and he had a long period of painful healing and was quite traumatized by it. My two boys now have their claws trimmed regularly, but I have some scratched furniture, woodwork and upholstery from not clipping soon enough.I definitely would not declaw an adult cat, so I live with the consequences. This is the price one pays for living with cats. I love them both and only gently stop them when I catch them scratching(this has been my experience).
Posted: March 07, 2013 at 6:24 AM
Cheryl
Cats are perfect as created. Furniture can be replaced.

Bob, all the ice cream you can eat will take your mind off the bleeding! ;-)

More vets do need to make owners aware of the details of the procedures and possible consequences not only of declawing, but docking and chopping ears off as well (term for that?). They could stand up for their beliefs (not earning potential). Only one vet out of several will actually do those procedures at my current location.

Apartment owners also need to be more reasonable with pet rules...they are family!
Posted: March 06, 2013 at 11:27 PM
Kiva
Declawing is perfectly humane if: 1) you are willing to make a lifetime committment to the cat 2) the cat will NEVER go outdoors 3) you have a good vet who is knowledgeable about pain management.
I've had 7 cats, all declawed, 5 I got as kittens & had them declawed, 2 I adopted later in their lives & were already declawed. I have had no behavior problems with any of them and they ALL still "scratch". The scratching does 2 things (that I know of) 1) loosens/removes the outer shedded layer of claw (no longer necessary after declaw) and 2) deposits their scent from glands between their toes.
I lived for a couple of years with my brother and his 2-3 cats, none declawed. His furniture (thankfully second-hand) was destroyed. No amount of re-direction or positive feedback could deter them.
I firmly believe that for a desiring and committed cat owner, declawing is an important event for the happiness of both parties.
Posted: February 13, 2013 at 11:46 AM
MarieOprano
i think its ok to declaw because if u dont wan him to scrtch the furniture and if ur mom said u can only keepit if it gets declawed. granted it is a surgical process, but after he is fully recovered he has the same home, but if we had to get rid of him because we didnt geet him declawed he would either have a life on the street, ora terrible abusive home, or just re ajusting to a knew home. who knows what would happen to the poor thing? anyways, thats just my opinion...
Posted: January 27, 2013 at 2:55 PM
Bob
I thinks it fine to declaw . My cat is great but when she wants attention she will jump on your lap unexpectedly. Then grab on to protect her fall. Its rare but it happens . Im sick of bleeding . The cat is indoors. Yes it will hurt but she will be asleep and in a week . The cat recovers and is fine.
Hello its like getting your tonsils out. Ill give the cat all the tuna she can eat.
Posted: August 19, 2012 at 11:02 PM
Photo of Kelly S.
Kelly S.
I have to respectfully disagree with one thing that Dr. Maciorakowski had to say. Vets DO recommend declawing..and entirely all too often. They give clients "2 for 1s" by having their cat declawed at the same time as spay/neuter. I have even seen ads in papers for this. Rarely are clients given the full story on declaw and the post-operative issues that most cats will face. California ( where in several cities there is now a declaw ban in place) had a very difficult time passing the ban because vets are up in arms about it. Even the AVMA, while not agreeing with the scietific evidence that declaw can cause health and behvioral issues, states that it only be done after all other methods of controlling severe scratching behavior have been exhausted.

I would love to see onychectomy banned in all 50 states as it is in 31 countries around the world.
Posted: October 24, 2011 at 1:17 PM
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